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Features & Columns

How podcasts have become the backbone for white supremacist recruiting

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How podcasts have become the backbone for white supremacist recruiting

2021-10-01 01:08:21

By K. Shalini 

Extremists on the far-right have built a network of podcasts critical to spreading white supremacist propaganda, building an audience for extremism, and organizing events like the deadly 2017 Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows.

Encouraged by the intimate nature of audio broadcasting, low barriers to entry and lax oversight from podcasting platforms, extremist podcasting has grown from a niche of the far-right to a sprawling web of white supremacists who regularly appear on one another’s shows, the report reveals.

Just ask white nationalist Richard Spencer, who came to fame in the first two years of the Trump presidency as the leader of the so-called “alt-right” movement. He co-hosts a podcast every month.

 “I like podcasting for this very reason,” Spencer said, describing the cozy atmosphere as "friendship nationalism."

“Friendship nationalism," he said, "is basically this network of podcasts where people are talking about current events and they’re just kind of hanging out.”

While some extremist podcasters took a break after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which sent many of the country’s white supremacists into hiding, experts said there are indications the network is reawakening.

As in its heyday between 2015 and 2020, far-right podcasting has the potential to quietly spread hate without attracting as much attention as social media or video streaming platforms, experts said.

“Podcasting is a huge deal,” said Megan Squire, an extremism researcher, professor and one of the authors of the report. “Listening to extreme, right-wing radio is a clandestine activity, and being able to have these recordings that you can play on a personal device through your earbuds is so important to these groups.”

Audio extremist propaganda

During World War II, Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, developed a radio network to deliver polished Nazi propaganda to German homes.

In the United States, conservative talk radio boomed after the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which required broadcasters to present balanced arguments on contentious subjects.

A cadre of controversial, right-wing radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh soon gained huge audiences in a country increasingly divided on political matters like LGBTQ rights, abortion and race.

Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich are posing for a picture: Rush Limbaugh talks on a phone as House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures during a break in taping of NBC's "Meet the Press" on Nov. 12, 1995 in Washington.

The topic of the news show was showdown and shutdown in regards to the federal budget.© DOUG MILLS, AP Rush Limbaugh talks on a phone as House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures during a break in taping of NBC's "Meet the Press" on Nov. 12, 1995 in Washington. The topic of the news show was showdown and shutdown in regards to the federal budget.

In March 2005, the earliest example Squire and co-author Hannah Gais could find, a new generation of ultraconservative “shock jocks” found a home in the burgeoning world of podcasting. They were soon joined by avowed neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, who recognized the power of the medium to stealthily spread racist propaganda.

Extremist podcasting peaked just before and during the Trump administration. By 2016, according to the report, a core network had developed of explicitly white supremacist podcasters and hosts who identified as part of the “alt-right,” a term coined by Spencer in 2008 to denote a new school of thought centered around age-old racist tropes.

Researchers tracked 18 shows between 2005 and 2020. Shows included podcasts on the network “The Right Stuff,” which became the most popular collaborative for white supremacist podcasters, and “Identity Dixie,” which focused on neo-Confederate programming.

Experts in extremism have long described the process of radicalization as a pipeline or a “rabbit hole” that susceptible individuals fall into. Extremist leaders and influencers use edgy humor and pseudo-intellectual arguments to draw recruits into their movement.

Podcasting provides an ideal platform for spreading these ideas, said Daniel Harper, a host of the podcast “I Don’t Speak German,” who has spent years studying and listening to extremist podcasts.

“You almost can’t overstate the importance of far-right podcasting in terms of the growth of the movement,” Harper said. “People listen to a podcast long-term because they like the host; they feel like they’re in the room having a conversation with their friends.”

Podcasting is a uniquely effective medium for this type of messaging, said Bridget Todd, host of the podcast "There Are No Girls on the Internet," a podcast that highlights marginalized voices on the internet.

“Podcasting is such an intimate medium," she said. "I’ll put my earbuds in and I’ll fall asleep listening to my favorite podcaster’s voice. You can really see how that could be exploited to lure people into extremist ideology.”

Organizing events and rewriting history

The SPLC researchers found that podcasts were instrumental in spreading word of major extremist events, most notably the 2017 Charlottesville rally, where anti-racist activist Heather Heyer was killed by an extremist who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

They found other examples of real-life organizing, including by neo-Nazi podcaster Robert Ray, who goes by “Azzmador.” He helped fellow neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin create a series of meet-ups that the organizers called “Pool parties.”

Extremist podcasters have attempted to change the narrative after events that portrayed the extreme right in a bad light, the study found. After Charlottesville, for example, podcast hosts tried to recast the protest as a patriotic, peaceful march that was hijacked by counter-protesters.

That's happening now in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Harper said. Hosts have pushed the false narrative that the protests at the Capitol were peaceful and that Trump supporters did nothing wrong, he said.

Today, America’s extremists are most active on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, an alternative to Twitter. Some have turned to livestreamed video on platforms that tolerate extremist content or haven’t yet deplatformed creators who violate their rules, such as Bitchute or Trovo.

But Harper, who listens to hours of extremist podcasts every week, said far-right podcasting is thriving. And he said there are signs the community is regrouping.

After Charlottesville, and again after the Jan. 6 insurrection, there was a lot of infighting in the extremist community, Harper said. That seems to be dissipating.

Podcast hosts are starting to invite one another onto their shows, Harper said. And podcasters such as hosts of shows from The Right Stuff network are still making enough money to work as full-time podcasters, he said.

“They adjusted to the circumstances," Harper said. “They’re not able to be on major platforms; they’re not able to get the word out on Twitter; they’re not able to do public events like marches and rallies, but they can do podcasts.”

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